They’re still incredibly uncommon, but nonbinary player-characters are popping up in popular games, and are paving the way for a major shift in the industry.
Traditionally, videogames have adhered to the gender binary: player-characters and NPCs are typically male or female, with little room for fluid interpretation. With games often looking at what’s been made before to inspire what’s yet to come, and with designers attempting to follow in the footsteps of past successes, it can be difficult to break the industry’s habits.
That said, several recent game releases have been willing to take innovative risks in terms representations of gender, hopefully signifying a shift in how non-binary genders are included in the medium. For example, Pyre (2017) - Supergiant Games’ recent hit - proves that providing players with gender neutral options might not be the current norm, but it’s certainly not impossible.
Pyre is one of few games that allows a player to choose the pronouns - rather than gender - of their player-character at the beginning of the narrative. This decision happens naturally the first time the player is referred to in conversation: by default, an NPC calls the player-character ‘she’, and interacting with the word allows the player to change this to ‘they’ or ‘he’, depending on their preference. This no-fuss approach to pronouns does wonders for normalising gender neutral options.
And Pyre loses absolutely nothing for offering this choice. Where choosing ‘she/her’ or ‘he/him’ pronouns results in particular NPCs referring to the player-character as ‘sister’ or ‘brother’, selecting ‘they/them’ replaces these labels with gender neutral pet names, which still suggest intimacy. And the game facilitates fluidity too, allowing the player to alter their pronoun selection in the menu at any time.
Playing through Pyre with ‘they/them’ pronouns and gender neutral terms of affection was refreshing. But, while uncommon, pronoun options aren’t unheard of in other games:
- Event (2016) has an early screen that allows the player to decide whether ‘she’, ‘he’, or ‘they’ pronouns best describe the player-character;
- Read Only Memories (2015) allows players to choose between several pronoun options or input their own;
- Sunless Sea (2015) lets players choose a title - some of which are gendered (ma’am or sir) and some of which are not (citizen);
- LongStory (2014) gives the player ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’ pronoun options on the character creation screen;
- and Robots Need Love Too (2014) allows the player to choose between ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘they’, ‘zie’, ‘ey’, and ‘xie’ pronouns.
However, compared to the number of titles that are released each year, this list of examples is slim. There are limited opportunities for players to create nonbinary characters, and be referred to with gender neutral pronouns.
And that’s a key aspect of these examples: players get to choose. It’s incredibly valuable to be able to select a gender non-binary player-character, but only certain players will ever make this choice. What about games that force players to experience a nonbinary player-character’s story, like the many games that force us to experience the narratives of white, straight, cisgender men?
There are very few examples of games with nonbinary player-characters, which is not surprising - but there are some examples!
One of the most popular games with a non-binary player-character is Undertale (2015). This game has been mocked for being fervently loved by online communities like those on Tumblr, but the game’s cult-following can be attributed to the way it made underrepresented minorities feel like they were finally being welcomed in games. A House of Many Doors (2017) and Hollow Knight (2017) followed in its footsteps, assigning they/them pronouns to the player-character without giving the player a choice.
Although many games might still be bound to the tradition of populating their worlds with only male and female characters, these exceptions to the rule are allowing - or forcing - players to understand that there are more possibilities out there, and allowing developers to access examples of how they might include gender neutral options in their own games.
For example, recent release Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles (2017) disrupts gender norms, encouraging players to wear dresses and moustaches simultaneously, and complete quests like helping Katie to grow an impressive beard; however, despite allowing players to experiment with gender presentation, Yonder still requires players to select whether their player-character is male or female during character creation. Why? Likely for the same reason most character creation screens include these options - it’s just what you do.
It’s important to consider why we are asking players to specify the gender of their player-character. And if it’s to determine which pronouns other characters use when referring to the player, why not ask that instead?
Games like Pyre offer developers like Prideful Sloth - who made Yonder - an example that they might emulate, and they’ve taken note [see above tweet]. The more games innovate with gender neutral pronoun options and nonbinary player-characters, the more examples there are for future developers to use as inspiration, and the more opportunities there are for nonbinary players to feel represented.
We need to include non-binary characters in the game worlds we create, because non-binary people live in the world we share.